The Big Month Ends – OK – But Only Ok

It was February 22nd. One more week to find at least 5 more species to get to 200 and hopefully a couple to spare as safeguards against misidentifications, rejections, whatever. There were single species here and there that were possible adds, but the best chances for multiple new ones would be to retrace steps and return to places where I had missed birds earlier. The top three options were another trip to Clark County, to the Okanogan and back to either or both Kittitas County and Walla Walla. Kittitas could be birded on the way to Walla Walla or as a long way around to get to Okanogan County. This is how I assessed opportunities.

Kittitas County – the shortest trip by a little – about 150 miles to Vantage. The longer I waited the better the chance that some of the shrub steppe/sage species would be in including Mountain Bluebird, Sagebrush Sparrow, Say’s Phoebe and another chance for Chukar. I would have to go over Snoqualmie Pass which meant possible snow issues.

Walla Walla County – hard to do in a single day (although I have done it before). At least 250 miles to get there and another 50 plus driving to various target areas. Possibilities included Blue Jay, Cedar Waxwing, Ferruginous Hawk and possibly Say’s Phoebe although none had been reported yet. This trip also would require negotiating Snoqualmie Pass.

The Okanogan – impossible in a single day. At least 600 miles round trip as several spots would have to be visited. Targets would be Sharp Tailed Grouse, Bohemian (and possibly Cedar) Waxwings, Chukar and a newly reported Yellow Billed Loon. One positive was that at least 3 of these species were being reported consistently. In addition to the length of the trip, there was also the need to go over Stevens Pass which had had even more snow trouble than Snoqualmie.

Clark County – about 190 miles one way – definitely doable in a single day. Targets were the Acorn Woodpeckers I had missed before, Tree and Violet Green Swallows, Red Shouldered Hawk and a very remote chance that the Snowy Egret had returned. A very surprising Swainson’s Hawk had been reported by good birders which provided additional incentive. Plus I could stop (yet again) at Levee Pond near Tacoma on the way trying for the Green Heron that everyone except me had seen there. Unfortunately, the White Faced Ibis that I had missed earlier was no longer being seen, perhaps a victim of the snow. Another plus for this trip was that while there might be traffic, there was no mountain pass to negotiate.

No mountain pass and the addition of the Swainson’s Hawk determined my choice – with the knowledge that I would probably have to go to one or even two of the other locations later. So early Monday morning I again headed south planning to stop first to try for the Swainson’s Hawk in Woodland then try for the Woodpeckers, then the Swallows and hope for a Red Shouldered Hawk somewhere along the way. If time permitted I would go for the Heron on my return. I found the place in the Woodland Bottoms where the juvenile Swainson’s Hawk had been seen the previous day. On my first pass, I did not see a single raptor. As I retraced my route, I found a hawk perched in a direction where I would not have noticed it coming the other way. I grabbed a photo and then watched it fly off. There was no red in the tail and I was pretty certain it was the juvenile Swainson’s Hawk – a species that had not even been on my possibilities list originally. Later when I had a chance to review the photos without the influence of seeing what I wanted to see, I concluded that I had a much more likely Red Tailed Hawk so this species was counted for a day but then moved over to my “not really list”. Instead of including that errant photo, I include one of a group of Sandhill Cranes – always great to see anywhere and especially easy to find in Clark and Cowlitz Counties.

Sandhill Cranes – Woodland Bottoms

Buoyed by what I thought was the find of the Swainson’s Hawk, I continued south and went to the grove of oaks at Fort Vancouver National Historical Site where I had the Acorn Woodpeckers in January but had missed them earlier in the month. I scanned every oak there and at some adjacent groups but found no woodpeckers at all. They had been reported off and on since the snow, but today at least for me it was “off”. Next it was on to Lower River Road hoping that the Snowy Egret had returned or that swallows would be flying over the lake. No egret and no swallows. The day was looking much dimmer and then I was somewhat rescued by a Red Shouldered Hawk that I heard and saw briefly as I returned to my car. So at that time I thought I probably had added two species. There were two more possible locations for swallows, so there was hope. I had never been to the Shillapoo Wildlife Area on Lake Vancouver off of LaFrambois Road. As I drove to the boat launch it did not strike me as special – just another place to view the large lake. But today it was special as there were numerous swallows feeding above the water picking off insects, invisible to me but seen by them. There were at least 40 and very probably more. I viewed each as best I could with binoculars and my scope and found only Tree Swallows – new for the month. I tried to make one into a Violet Green Swallow or other species but could not do it. Maybe luck would be better at Ridgefield NWR.

I saw the “normal suspects” at Ridgefield but no swallows at all. On the way home I tried unsuccessfully yet again for the Green Heron at Levee Pond so what had started out as a very positive day became a far less positive once especially with the removal of the Swainson’s Hawk. I had added two species but was particularly disappointed in not finding the Acorn Woodpeckers. There were still 6 days to go to find at least 3 more species, but somehow the fun was disappearing – maybe because I thought I had to take one of those longer trips considered above.

The weather was bad on Tuesday precluding trips over the passes due to avalanche danger and frankly I was a little bummed by the previous day. A Glaucous Gull had been reported from a park in Burlington, WA in Skagit County. An hour or so north, it would not require going over the mountains so that became my target. Another Edmonds birder had reported it about an hour before I got there. I found the field and saw maybe 25 gulls. I also saw another car with a birder inside that looked like it may be there for the gulls. She was and had not seen the Glaucous Gull. I spent the next hour driving around the area checking each gull. No all white gulls were to be found. My mood darkened as it was the second time I had chased this species this month without success after easily finding the one at Gene Coulon Park in Renton in January. Had I gone an hour earlier, would I have seen it? No way to answer the question. It was too late to try for anything else anywhere except maybe a couple of places for Cedar Waxwings, but I had lost steam and just went home to attend to other matters and regroup.

On Wednesday I was feeling both down and guilty. I should have tried harder on Tuesday. Gone north earlier or said weather be damned and tried again for the Green Heron or go to Mason County and try for a Mountain Quail. There were still problems on the passes so a long trip East was not a good idea. Cedar Waxwings had been seen off and on at Magnuson Park, so that became my goal. I don’t enjoy birding in Magnuson Park or Discovery Park, two places in Seattle that are heavily birded and produce many good observations. Somehow they just don’t feel intuitively good to me with trails and roads that don’t work well in my mind at least. I got to Magnuson and decided to cover as much of the probable good habitat as I could. I spent about an hour walking about a mile and a half, retracing some steps and almost upon returning to my car I saw a bird atop a poplar that just might be a Waxwing. The lighting was not great, but I could see its crest and the yellow tip on the tail, grabbed a photo and finally checked off what should have been an easy species off my list. I include the lousy photo and also one that I really love from the Waxwings I easily found when I wasn’t looking for them in January.

Cedar Waxwing – Magnuson Park
Cedar Waxwing from January

With this success in hand I felt that maybe finally I would find a Green Heron. Everyone else in the world had seen it at Levee Pond and another was a possibility at the Boeing Ponds. The latter was closer so was my first stop. Nope – nada. How about Levee Pond – again nothing and I scoped every branch on every tree surrounding the pond. Having junked the Swainson’s Hawk, I was now at 198 species. There were 4 days to go and at least two more species needed. Hopefully more which meant that I would have to go east again in the remaining days left. I figured I would put that off until the weekend, try for something else west of the mountains and then devote one or even two days to Eastern Washington depending on what was needed. A benefit would be that it gave more time for the birds to move into the sage and be there when I arrived.

When I got back home, I saw another report for the Glaucous Gull in Burlington with a notation that it had been seen early – before the dog walkers had arrived. I planned to be there at first light the next morning. When I arrived around 7:15 there were many more gulls than I had seen on my previous visit – well over 100. I scanned diligently and found exclusively Glaucous Winged or Glaucous Winged x Western Hybrids – the common Larus gulls of Puget Sound. Nothing all white. I was not a happy camper. After 15 minutes I spied what seemed to be my all white Glaucous Gull at the far end of the field, barely visible with binoculars. And I also saw a guy walking directly towards the gulls with his two off-leash dogs. Of course the dogs charged the gulls and the gulls took flight. Now I was a very unhappy camper but figured at least that the gull was here and was likely to return. About 15 minutes later, it did. This time a lot closer to me and I had hopes for a photo. Now what? A security guard in a white pick up was driving right towards me. He had seen me from his route up on the levee and came down – to be friendly and chat. Ok, I enjoy such encounters on my trips, but this was bad timing. As his truck approached, again the gulls took flight. I watched my bird take off and disappear over the neighboring buildings. I was really mad but managed to be civil and even a bit friendly as I explained why I was there and that a very rare gull (he did not realize there were such things) had just flown off.

At least now I felt certain I had seen it and pretty certain that it would return IF there were no other intrusions. This time it did not take so long. Mr. Security had returned to his duties. No dogs were in sight but the gull was at the furthest part of the field at least 250 or 300 yards away. I took a distant record photo and then began walking towards it stopping every 25 yards or so to get a better picture. Finally I got within less than 50 yards got a great picture and felt not just relief but conquest. Stay tuned as that feeling would get challenged later.

Possible Glaucous Gull – Burlington

Glaucous Gulls are essentially all white with a large bicolored bill – pinkish with a black tip. This gull was all white for sure and it had a bicolored bill, kind of pinkish with a black tip – well sort of. The tip was blackish not as solidly so as on other Glaucous Gulls I have seen. A question has arisen as to whether this might be a hybrid Glaucous x Glaucous Winged Gull or possibly a leucistic Glaucous Winged or Glaucous Winged x Western Gull Hybrid. I sent photos to two “experts” who were inclined to a good Glaucous Gull ID but also acknowledged an imperfect bill – possibly an aberration or possibly something else. I have kept it in the “win column” but it thus became even more important to go past 200 species for the month to be safe. I had hopes for the rest of the day as well.

My best shot for another new species that day was for a Western Bluebird at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Pierce County. They are regular in the prairies there even in February. I had good directions from Bruce LaBar but since there is “Restricted Access” on the Base and I have never gotten a permit, I was a bit leery. It was unlikely I would be stopped and I did not have to go through an access gate, but I still felt a bit uneasy. The same situation applied last year when I went to JBLM to try for a lifer Washington photo of a Northern Bobwhite. My approach then was to be ready to beg for forgiveness rather than seek a complicated permission. It worked and I got the photo and never saw anyone. At JBLM there are woods and open areas and firing ranges with warnings that there could be undetonated ordinance so “Remain in Your Vehicles”. It took awhile to find the right spot but once I got there, the habitat was perfect. It was quite windy and I did not see any Bluebirds flying about. On a second pass I was able to find a single bird perched on a distant signpost. If the Glaucous Gull was the real deal this would be species #200 for the month. Sure I was pleased but there had been so many misses and ups and downs for the week that there was no jubilation, That would come – hopefully with another species or two.

On the way back home I got a call from friend Jon Houghton who shared information that Frank Caruso had found a perched Barred Owl in Yost Park in Edmonds. They have bred there for the past several years but have been tough if not impossible to find this year. I called Ann Marie Wood and shared the information. She had not seen one this year, so we met and trekked down the trail together finding it exactly where Frank had left it a couple of hours ago. It was not a new species for the month but the earlier one in Pine Ridge Park was heard and only briefly seen in flight so this was much better even if the photo is not award winning.

Barred Owl – Yost Park

On Friday, I almost decided to go over to the Okanogan and make a two trip to find 2 or 3 or 4 or even 5 new species, but I had lost my enthusiasm. I think the combination of too little sleep, way too much snow, and way too many misses had taken their toll. I felt confident that I could go over to Kittitas County again on Saturday and find at least one or two species and if I didn’t then I could venture further to the Okanogan or Walla Walla that night and find one or two there. I can’t even remember what I did on the 26th, but it did not include birds. I headed east very early on the 27th in crappy weather on I-90 as I neared the Pass. It was open but it was snowing and traffic was heavy and slow with the normal 60 mph limit reduced to 35 mph. Trucks were not even going that fast. It was supposed to clear and be warm later, but what usually took about two hours to get to Ellensburg took at least 2.5 hours. At least the weather there was clear and it was windy but not gale force. My main goal was to find a Sagebrush Sparrow with additional hopes for Say’s Phoebe, Mountain Bluebird and Chukar. Normally I would bird my way east along Old Vantage Highway trying for Sagebrush Sparrow along the way. That had been unsuccessful my last trip and with the lost time I wanted to get to Rocky Coulee in Vantage where I hoped for the Phoebe and Chukar earlier before crowds appeared.

Just before getting there I got a call from Deb Essman. She and husband Bill were jeeping in the backcountry and had found Sagebrush Sparrows. I could not access that area but her suggestion was to hike up into the Quilomene area above the corrals where there was really good sage. I was close to Vantage so I carried on instead of back tracking to do so. Rocky Coulee and Vantage have been major disappointments this year except for the Bighorns I have seen there twice. Usually Say’s Phoebe and Canyon Wrens are guaranteed and Chukar is a good possibility. Once again I found no Canyon Wren and no Say’s Phoebe. I found probably the same two Rock Wrens that I had seen on an earlier visit – looking like they had paired up and were building a nest. It was not very satisfying and at any other time I would not even have counted it, but I did hear the call of a Chukar high up on the rocks. I scanned through my scope hoping for a look but never did get a visual. I have heard them there many times before and have usually gotten at least a brief glance. But they camouflage well and I have also missed them before. I decided to count the species – but only if I found a Sagebrush Sparrow later.

I headed west and stopped at Milepost 20 and other sage areas along Vantage Highway. The wind had picked up and I found only Ravens and a Prairie Falcon along the way. I got to the corrals and drove in. The snow had been deep when I last visited and was now completely gone. Unfortunately the melt off meant there was mud – lots of mud. I would be hiking up along a jeep road into a draw that was usually good for the sparrows but the mud meant slow going – so slow in fact that I abandoned the “road” and mostly bushwhacked. It was fortunately, at least, less windy up the draw and after something less than a half mile, I heard the song of the Sagebrush Sparrow – definitely music to my ears. In another month or so there should also be Sage Thrashers, Vesper and Brewer’s Sparrows and Mountain Bluebirds. This day, the single Sagebrush Sparrow was the only bird I saw or heard. Now I felt OK counting the Chukar, I so had either 201 or 202 species depending on whether the Glaucous Gull would remain in the good column. I would not have to carry on to Walla Walla or the Okanogan. If the week had gone better, I think I would have been in better spirits and done so anyway. Not this time. Time to call it a day, call it a month and head home before who knows what would happen on the Pass.

In fact the Pass was completely clear. Still many feet of snow on the sides of the road, but the road itself was clear and traffic flowed easily. I was home for dinner. And Sunday was birdless – and sadly somewhat joyless as unlike with other such endeavors I was left thinking more about what I missed and less about what I had found. I think it is mostly related to snow – not enough earlier to bring the Sharp Tailed Grouse into the Water Birch in the Okanogan and then too much which changed conditions and access for many days and may have led to the demise of some birds. It was good to end with the Sagebrush Sparrow and move away from the quest and rest.

Sagebrush Sparrow – Among My Favorite Sparrows

I feel pretty good that when all is said and done, 200 species will still remain on the list for the month. The Hoary Redpoll may not be accepted by the Records Committee and is a tough call in any event. I think it is good and that opinion is shared by many who have seen the photo. The Glaucous Gull could also disappear. With both of those, my tally was 202 species, so 200 is good even without them. Maybe it was unlikely with the snow, but I cannot help feel that a lot more species were possible and at least several more should have been seen. Maybe I have lost some of the necessary drive for an all out quest, and that is probably just fine. I have had over 200 species in Washington in the months of January (when I tried for it) and in the month of May when that had not been on my mind and just happened. I don’t know if I will ever try for another month again, but it would be cool to add some more to done column. I am pretty sure it could be done for March and April and probably December. With pelagic trips and migration, it should also be doable in September and October but I am not so sure about July when birds are quiet and more inactive. August and November would also be challenging. I am too old to take on all of these quests. Maybe one more…maybe.

These are the species that I specifically missed together with some that I did not specifically try for. If planning and execution had been perfect (it never is) all 21 might have been seen and there are a few more that showed up and were seen once or twice in the state this February: Green Heron, Mountain Bluebird. Say’s Phoebe, Mountain Quail, White Faced Ibis, Acorn Woodpecker, Yellow Billed Loon, Sharp Tailed Grouse, Ferruginous Hawk, Bohemian Waxwing, Western Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Pacific Golden Plover, Spotted Sandpiper, Turkey Vulture, Violet Green Swallow, Black Legged Kittiwake, Canada Jay, Evening Grosbeak, White Winged Crossbill and Blue Jay. And this is with Neah Bay still off limits.

Good birding all. Find a challenge and go for it!!

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